Breath

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Review by © Jane Freebury

Surfing makes for elegant and beautiful spectator sport, as those of us who stick to land know only too well.

Ever since I lived on the coast south of Sydney I have thought that surfing was out of this world but that it needed patient dedication and a kind of insanity to pursue. Day in, day out, the surfers were there, floating in a heaving expanse of blue or grey as they waited for the big one.

Communicating the visceral experience of surfing is one of Breath’s triumphs, pitching us into deep water to show what the struggle to survive in another world can feel like. Early scenes are in still water, with Pikelet (Samson Coulter) and Loonie (Ben Spence) exploring a river, but soon transition to the ocean beaches in the Great Southern region of Australia.

Water cinematography by Rick Rifici brings the experience home with beautiful and enthralling vision, above and below the surface.

In the remote corner of the continent where they are growing up, there’s not much for these two teenage friends to do. They can go to the beach, ride around on their battered bikes, or they get up to no good spooking truck drivers on the highway.

On a trip to the coast they encounter a hardcore surfer, Sando (Simon Baker, who is also director), who gives them rides to and from the beach in his – yes, you guessed it – Kombi van. He and his wife, Eva (Elizabeth Debicki) can help out by letting them leave their gear at his house. It saves them the trouble of cycling to the water with their heavy fibreglass boards under one arm while negotiating the road with the other.

It turns out that Sando, a laconic, unfettered 70s man, has a bit of history. His reputation in the surfing world is on the record on old magazine covers, catching waves from Mexico to Indonesia. If he wasn’t already a surfer to look up to, he certainly is now, though hardly the best role model.

Sando opens a window to a world that neither of the boys knew existed. The treacherous offshore breaks, the remote beach patrolled by a great white shark, and the wide world beckoning from across the sea. There is the strange world of adults, their losses and coping mechanisms and their various addictions.

When Sando and Loonie head overseas together on a surfing holiday, the void throws Pikelet into a relationship with Eva who limps from an injury that has put an end to her career as an extreme ski jumper. It opens a window on yet another space, dark and dangerous, and is another occasion when boundaries are crossed. It’s not just the sex.

This is not the first occasion that Simon Baker has directed. He has drawn naturalistic performances from his two untested leads, and he makes a very convincing Sando. Winton has also invested much of himself invested in this journey.

I hesitate to describe Breath as a coming-of-age film, but there is no getting away from its place in this popular local genre. However, it is in very good company, and among the best. Appearances and labels can be deceptive, anyway.

A film about surfing and surfer culture may not appear to speak to people who grew up in the inner city, or who have only lived on the land, or who think of the 1970s as a kind of dark ages.

There is nothing routine about this visually superb treatment of the subject that explores the liminal moment when young people choose their direction. And, it is of course based on the novel of Tim Winton, who also worked with Baker and Gerard Lee (Top of the Lake, Sweetie) on the screenplay.

Breath may not touch everyone, but it would be a pity if that were so. It is about so much more than blokes on boards.

Rated M, 115 minutes

4 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

 

 

Nocturnal Animals

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Review © by Jane Freebury

Nocturnal Animals is without question a transporting tale, stylish and clever, but it is also an onslaught of cruelty, yearning and pathos. A waking dream that niggles away.

At its core, it is about the things that really matter in life, the things that take some of us a lifetime to figure out. Art gallery owner Susan (Amy Adams) once left behind her loving relationship with Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), an aspiring writer, for a callow businessman more acceptable to her conservative establishment family. For Edward, there was never any doubt about what he wanted, and he remained true to himself as a teacher of literature at a school in Dallas. It has been the kind of life that Susan dreaded living alongside him, and he has nursed the devastation of their split some 20 years ago.

Their lives intersect again when he sends Susan the draft of his new novel. It is dedicated to her. What an incentive to begin reading! She settles down with it over the weekend after the opening night success of her exhibition, an installation of naked female figures, dancing and at rest.

We were thrown into this event with the opening credits. It is a vision of unfettered female flesh that the late Federico Fellini could have been created, or the figurative artist Patricia Piccinini. The director, Tom Ford, has said that his moving statues, the naked and obese older women, were meant to signify freedom of expression, freedom from constraint. Well, I don’t really buy that.

It has instead the chill of the fastidious fashion and style guru. With little effort made to tie these nudes into the narrative, it’s just looks like shock value. And it is surprising when so many of the aesthetic choices—like all those match cuts that draw the parallel narratives together, and the plangent string motif—make such an elegant tapestry. However, a steeliness is what you might expect in a tale of revenge.

So, alone behind the gates of the LA bunker she calls home, Susan begins to read. The book is about Tony (Gyllenhaal as well), husband and father, who is on a family road trip, making his way through the desert in West Texas at night. He is forced off the road by two carloads of hoons who appear to be so malevolent that a passing police car speeds up as it passes, rather than stop for Tony trying to wave it down. In an old-model Mercedes a million miles from anywhere and beyond range of cell phone coverage, Tony and his attractive wife and daughter are exceptionally vulnerable.

I can honestly say that these scenes of hijack and abduction are some of most terrifying I have ever witnessed on screen. Ford also wrote the screenplay which is adapted from a novel of the 1990s, Tony and Susan, by Austin Wright.

Events take their inevitable course, and Tony is left utterly devastated and alone, and the investigation drags on inconclusively. The local detective (a wonderful performance from Michael Shannon) seems slow to accept his version of events, though scepticism would have served him among the folks he operated among, and then proves to be terminally ill. It begins to feel incumbent on Tony to step in. His eventual metamorphosis into pitiless avenger is one of the powerful and convincing since Dustin Hoffman became a terrifying force to be reckoned with in Straw Dogs all those years ago.

For this ultra-intense tale to work as well as it does, we have immaculate direction by Ford, and fine, measured performances from Adams and Gyllenhaal, as the two characters who matter most. Shannon and many of the West Texan yahoos are also excellent. However, others slip in and out of caricature, including Amy’s heavily overdrawn mother, a Republican dowager played by Laura Linney.

For the locations from the sterile interiors and LA to the Texan desert emptiness, director Ford also wears his fashion designer credentials on his sleeve. At the same time, he sure knows how to tell a story and has stitched the blistering tale together to form a tapestry of some power.

‘Last summer while driving at night on the interstate, I was forced off the road…’ It’s a haunting refrain from a brilliant piece of cinema. Primal terror: beware.

Four Stars

Also published by Canberra Critics Circle